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Tribeca Talks: Passing Strange

Saturday night's screening of Passing Strange was followed by a panel discussion featuring director Spike Lee and co-creators Stew and Heidi Rodewald. How did the musical translate from stage to screen?

Passing Strange still
©Getty Images, photo credit: Amy Sussman

The Tribeca audience was in rocked-out bliss Saturday night at the end of Passing Strange, the new film event from Spike Lee. One of Spike's two entries in TFF '09 (the other is Kobe Doin' Work), Passing Strange came from a simple enough concept, but is much more complex than one might imagine. Lee was inspired to film the final three performances of the Broadway rock musical Passing Strange, and cut those performances into one film. However, this isn't the theatre-on-TV stuff you might have watched in the '70s; instead, Lee's film is vibrant and alive, cutting from here to there with a clarity and urgency that surely took the original musical to even greater heights.

In the story, loosely based on Stew's own experiences, a young African-American man from 1970s South Central LA goes on a journey of artistic discovery that leads him all over Europe—including Amsterdam and Berlin—before he eventually finds his way home again. The story, punctuated by rock numbers not typically heard in a Broadway house, enthused a new generation of theatregoers and developed a cult following. Passing Strange was nominated for seven Tony Awards in 2008, and Stew took home the award for Best Book of a Musical. (See a performance from the Tony Awards here.)

At the New York Premiere on Saturday (a special event exclusively for American Express® Cardmembers), the audience was rapturously entranced, applauding throughout the film, and then bursting into applause and raucous cheers as the film finished with a moving climax. On hand to discuss the film as part of the Tribeca Talks series were Lee and the musical's co-creators, Stew and his partner Heidi Rodewald.

©Getty Images (both), photo credit: Amy Sussman

Before anything began, Stew instructed everyone in the audience who had acted in the show or played an instrument to stand, and stand they did, to more cheers. The panel began, with Lee asking the questions: Where had Stew developed his interest in Europe, where half of the musical is set? "My elementary school teacher," Stew began, "told me that there was a place you could go where you wouldn't get accosted for just walking down the street, where jazz was appreciated like classical music. That was Europe. She was exaggerating a bit, but I think her point was, sometimes you have to get away from where you are to find out who you are."

"And why do you still live in Berlin?" Lee followed. "Man, I don't live anywhere," Stew replied. "I haven't had my name on a lease since 1997. But I'm in Berlin right now because I can concentrate there, and because my daughter's there."

After Rodewald expressed how excited she had been to realize that her songs would be in "a Spike Lee movie," Lee wanted to clarify: "This was a great piece of art before I even saw the show. I'm just happy that Steve Klein asked me to film it, so it could be recorded. Most plays, when they go, that's it."

"But it really is a film," Stew countered. "It's not just static, three-point cameras. In a theater, you can watch whatever you want to watch. But this just shows us what you want us to watch." He had Spike there; "It's cinematic," Lee conceded.

How did it all come together? Stew explained that they had received a commission to do something from the Public Theater, then workshopped it at various places, and then, "Somehow, we wound up on Broadway, which I'm still trying to figure out. It was funny, because it was the stoner rockers and the drama kids from high school, together. It was like a reality show."

"We had to keep reminding ourselves we were a band," Rodewald added, "because when you get surrounded by all these theater people, you could just feel the inclination to write a bunch of showtunes."

Stew nodded. "I tried writing a more theater-esque version," he explained, "but the theater people told us, 'This isn't you.' I realized they were right. The theater people reminded us we were rock people."

Variety reports that Passing Strange has been acquired by PBS for their Great Performances series, and will be broadcast sometime in 2010. They are also hopeful for a limited summer or fall theatrical release.


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